Letting Life Be Your Teacher (September 16, 2012)

posted Sep 30, 2012, 5:16 PM by Neal Jones

          Debbie, a counseling client of mine from another time and place, was having a hard time with the relationships in her life because she assumed off the bat that other people didn't like her.  Once she shared with me her life story, it was easier to understand why she felt this way.  Her father had been a workaholic, who practically abandoned Debbie and her mother while pursuing his career.  Left alone, her mother felt lonely and depressed, and she turned to alcohol to soothe her depression.  Neither parent spent much time with Debbie or was emotionally available to her.  As a child, Debbie thought as a child would think.  She concluded from her parents' emotional neglect that they didn't like her, and if her parents didn't like her, it must be because she was not very likeable.  Why wouldn't she come to this conclusion?  Her parents knew her better than anyone, and, from a child's vantage point, parents know everything. 

          Debbie took the conclusion she made in childhood with her into adulthood, which is typically what we all do.  Throughout her life, Debbie met various people, some who liked her, some who did not.  Those who did not seem to like her confirmed her assumption that she was not likeable.  You would think that meeting people who liked her, however, would invalidate her assumption, but that's not how assumptions work.  Typically, we don't change our assumptions to fit the facts; we change the facts to fit our assumptions.  So when Debbie encountered people who liked her, she assumed that they were merely being polite and pretending to like her; or that they just didn't know her well yet, and in time as they got to know her, they would dislike her; or that they were the rare exception to the rule, so she dismissed their friendship.  This is how the past colors the present, or as William Faulkner put it, "The past is not dead.  It's not even past." 

          Debbie's assumptions about herself exerted power over her actions.  Since she anticipated that people would not like her, she would not be very likeable.  She would be withdrawn and not engage in much conversation with others, or she would even act snarky on occasion.  Sure enough, both behaviors influenced others not to like her very much.  In other words, Debbie was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is something else we all typically do. 

          She came to see a counselor because she wanted to change.  Last Sunday, I talked about there being two approaches to personal change.  One way is trying harder.  This approach is about change from the outside in.  You change how you behave or you change your external circumstances in order to change who you are internally.  This approach takes action.  It formulates a step-by-step plan with clear goals and objectives and then exerts will-power to reach these goals.  This is the all-American way to try to change, and some people assume it's the only way. 

          Debbie tried this approach before visiting me.  She bought a book of daily affirmations, such as "I'm a good, decent, likeable person," and she practiced saying this to herself in front of the mirror each day.  She became more intentional about smiling when talking with others and tried to be more positive and upbeat.  Despite her best efforts, however, nothing seemed to work.  Debbie could not make herself believe that other people could possibly like her. 

          Trying harder is not the only way to change.  Another way is not trying so hard.  This approach is about change from the inside out, changing the way you perceive, think, and feel in order to change how you behave.  This approach is not so much about doing as being.  It's about acceptance, and as Carl Rogers observed, the more thoroughly we accept ourselves, the more change seems to happen unnoticed. 

          I have a very sophisticated way of determining which way is the better way, and here it is:  When what you're doing ain't working, try something different.  Since Debbie had been trying so hard to change to no avail, it made sense to me that perhaps she shouldn’t try so hard.  So we just sat and talked.  I listened while she told me about her childhood, in particular about the hurt and loneliness she felt from her parents' neglect of her.  Since they had provided for all of her material needs, she had never considered that they had been neglectful of her emotional needs.  We looked at how their lack of warmth and nurture had led her to believe that they didn't like her and that she was unlikeable, and for the first time, she became aware that she had chosen to believe this assumption as a child and that she was still believing it as an adult. 

          I listened patiently and attentively as she recounted the many disappointments she had had in her relationships and how frustrated and helpless she felt that things could be different.  I asked her periodically to share what she was feeling about our relationship, and usually she would say that I was being nice to her because I was being paid to be nice, and I would always remind her that she was paying for my time but that you couldn't pay someone to like you.  Over time, she started to believe that her therapist did like her, and more importantly, she started to experience herself as a likeable person.  Over time, she became less likely to assume that other people in her life would not like her.  She began to give others the benefit of the doubt, she didn't feel as guarded around others, and others didn't feel put off by her.  She became more comfortable with the idea of people liking her and with the feeling of being liked, a feeling she had rarely let herself feel before.  In time, she began to make friends.  Debbie changed by not trying so hard to change. 

          One way to understand what happened with Debbie is to see that she did not allow herself to experience her life.  Her assumption that she was unlikeable was a wall between herself and the experience that others could and did like her.  She was stuck in living in her assumptions about life instead of living in her experiences of life.  When she began to trust and embrace her experience, she began to change.        

          Change always happens when we immerse ourselves in the experiences of our lives because life is like a river -- dynamic, flowing, always moving.  In fact, the word experience comes from the Latin root per, which means "forward" or "through."  Sometimes the river of life takes a straight path; sometimes it takes unexpected twists and turns.  The river of life is sometimes like a turbulent rapids or a slow, meandering stream.  I personally prefer the slow, meandering streams to the turbulent rapids, but sometimes life doesn’t give us a choice.  Whichever is the case, life is always moving, and if we get into the flow of our experience, we, too, will move.  Change happens through experience. 

          An old Jewish folk tale captures this wisdom.  King Solomon searched his kingdom for a cure for his depression.  The king assembled his wise men, and they pondered the problem for a long time and finally gave him a ring engraved with the words, "This too shall pass."  Solomon wore the ring constantly.  Every time he felt sad, he looked at the ring and would be reminded, "This too shall pass," and his mood would change. 

          Sometimes we don't immerse ourselves in our experience.  We may skim along the surface of our lives by keeping ourselves so busy with endless activity, so distracted with endless demands, that we never allow ourselves to be quiet and alone with ourselves.  You can't get to know yourself unless you spend time with yourself.  I don't know about you, but it makes me feel really important when I open my calendar and see it filled with appointments and events.  But when it's too full, that's not living.  That's skimming the surface of life.  You can't think deeply or feel deeply when you're frantically on the run. 

          When I worked for the Pastoral Counseling Center, I used to drive to Sumter one day a week to one of our satellite centers.  When I first started making those trips, I would whine and complain about the time I was losing on the road.  But then I realized that my time on the road was one of the few times in my week when I could be quiet and alone.  In the beginning, it felt uncomfortable because I wasn't sure what to do with myself.  But eventually, I realized I didn't have to do anything, just be.  In time, I looked forward to these mini-retreats from the busyness of life.

          Or we may separate ourselves from our experience, like Debbie was doing, by putting a wall of expectations and assumptions between ourselves and our experience.  I remember driving a car-load of kids to the North Carolina mountains for the summer youth trip of a previous church.  One of them had never seen the mountains, so as we rounded the road and caught our first vista of the mountains, she exclaimed, "Wow!  Awesome!  Look at that!  That's beautiful!  I've never seen anything like that before!"  I thought her reaction was adorable.  Then we came to the next vista.  " Wow!  Awesome!  Look at that!  That's beautiful!  I've never seen anything like that before!"  It was nice that she was really appreciating nature's grandeur.  Then the next vista, and the same intense reaction, and the next one, and the next one.  After a while, her excitement became annoying.  I caught myself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, if you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all.”

          Here were two people viewing the same scene in two very different ways.  She was opening herself to her experience of the mountains' majesty, while I was closing myself off from my experience with my prejudice:  "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt."  I was assuming there was nothing interesting to behold, so I lost my interest.  I assumed there was nothing to be gained from the experience, so I separated myself from the experience.  I was living in my assumption, not in my experience.  As a result, she was being changed, and I wasn't. 

          Our preconceptions, expectations, judgments, and prejudices were all formed in the past, based on past experience.  When we impose them on our present experience, they cut us off from the present flow of life, and we remain stagnant.  Our preconceptions and expectations interrupt the flow.  “It’s not supposed to be like this.  It’s too cold, warm, salty, bright, dark, cheap, or old.  I’m not strong, clever, wise, nice, diligent, or happy enough."  But life doesn't fit our molds, and if we hold ourselves back and wait for life to meet our expectations, we will never truly live … or change.

          I am always taken aback when I visit my family back home and notice how much I have changed and how much they have remained the same.  Our worldviews, religious beliefs, political perspectives, social mores, our values, even our language have grown more and more divergent over the years, so much so that it would not even occur to me to discuss with them the political conventions of the last two weeks or this morning's sermon.  I must have been switched at birth.  But there's a more likely explanation.  I generally approach life as if I'm still a student, and they approach life as if they have graduated.  I assume I have so much more to learn, and they assume that they already know all there is to know about other people, themselves, and the world around them, which is represented by the same small town, church, work, family, and circle of friends we grew up with.  Another way of saying this is that I have repeatedly chosen to expose myself to new experiences, and they have repeatedly chosen to play it safe and to go with what they already know.  Though we have chosen two very different approaches to life, I can understand their choosing the more familiar, more comfortable path.

          We don't change when we don't immerse ourselves in our lives.  Sometimes we skim along the surface of our lives with our busyness.  Sometimes we separate ourselves from our lives with our assumptions.  Sometimes we step out of the river of life and observe it from the riverbank.  This is the intellectual approach to life, not immersed in the flow of life, but reflecting on life from a safe distance -- examining, analyzing, questioning, investigating, dissecting, contemplating, pontificating on life.  You may recognize this as the Unitarian way.  It's living in your head but not in your life.  It's being cut off from the neck down -- from your body, your feelings, your intuition, your imagination, your relationships.  It's understanding everything but being passionately committed to nothing.  It's flesh and blood turned computer.  Computers don't change their program without input.  When you remove yourself from the stream of life and observe it from the riverbank, never getting your feet muddy or your body wet, you don't change.

          As I related last Sunday, many people -- I suspect most people -- go to church to feel comfortable and complacent, to be reassured that what has always been will always be, to be "saved," which means that one has arrived at one's spiritual destination.  We liberals come to our religious community to be challenged to stretch and grow, not to save our souls but to grow a soul, to be transformed and to transform our world, to embark on a lifetime adventure of exploration and discovery, a journey which never ends.  We liberals believe in and are dedicated to change. 

          One way of inviting change into your life is to embrace your life.  What does it mean to embrace your life?  It means to practice what we were taught to do as children before crossing the street:  Stop, look, and listen.  It means paying attention to your experience, being fully present in the here-and-now as life happens.  Much of the time we are here in body only, but our minds are somewhere else.  We listen but we don't hear.  We look but we don't see.  A character in the movie Postcards from the Edge wrote a card that said, "Having a wonderful time.  Wish I was here." 

          At various times in my life, I have been overweight, not obese, but unhealthily overweight.  At various times I have taken the try harder approach to lose weight.  I have forced myself to eat only certain foods in certain portions, and by sheer willpower, I have occasionally lost weight … only to gain it back and then some.  In recent years, however, I have tried to pay more attention to my body and to my experience of hunger.  I know this doesn't sound radical, but for me it's a radical approach.  I was taught as a kid to eat everything on my plate because, for some reason I didn't understand then and I still don't understand, my eating everything on my plate prevented hunger in China, and it must have worked because China has finally alleviated hunger.  When you learn to eat everything on your plate, your learn to focus on your plate and ignore your own experience of eating.  What I try to do now, not always successfully, is to slow down and relish my experience of a meal.  I try to take the time to notice the taste and texture of food in my mouth and to pay attention to my body sensation of satiation.  When I pay attention to my experience of eating, I find that I tend to eat smaller portions and (I find this fascinating) I tend to want to eat healthier foods.  In this way, without trying harder, I have been able to keep my weight down.  We invite change when we pay attention to our experience.

          We also invite change when we make room for all of our experience.  No one enjoys experiencing pain in their lives, but pain is as much a part of life as joy.  In fact, I've come to the realization that the experience of pain is necessary for the experience of joy because painful experiences enlarge our capacity to enjoy life. 

          Take the experience of grief.  Grief is a natural response of our body and psyche to loss, and the more significant the person or thing lost, the longer and the more intense your grief.  But the thing is that grief, like all emotions, does pass eventually if we make room for it and fully experience it.  Some people think they can cheat their grief if they force themselves to ignore their sadness and force themselves to think and do only "positive" things.  We men especially don't wear our grief very well, and many of us -- and quite a few women too -- will enter a new relationship without giving ourselves time to grieve and heal from the loss of a previous relationship.  But you can't cheat grief.  You may suppress it for a while, but it will express itself.  People who try to short-circuit their grief only end up prolonging it.  My grandfather used to have a saying:  "If you've got to go through a horn, go through the small end first."  If you want to heal from a loss, make room for your grief.  Reminisce about the person you've lost.  Look at old pictures and videos.  Play old music.  Talk about him or her with friends and family who knew them.  Let the tears flows.  Don't hold back.  Embrace your grief fully, and then you'll be better able to let it go.  We invite change when we make room for all of our experience. 

          Sometimes trying harder leads to change.  But sometimes our plans and actions can interfere with change.  Sometimes our plans and actions can intrude upon the natural flow of our life experience.  When we immerse ourselves in the experiences of our life, even unpleasant, painful experiences -- perhaps primarily the unpleasant, painful experiences -- we will change because life is like a river, dynamic, flowing, always moving.  This approach to change is not about trying to control the flow of life; it's going with the flow with your eyes and your mind and your heart wide open.  It's not so much about doing as being.  It's about acceptance.  It's letting life be your teacher, and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the lessons never end. 

                                                                                                                                                        Rev. Dr. Neal Jones